Poker returns with National target

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POKER De Sivola, Yorkshire’s top staying chaser, puts his Grand National credentials on the line in today’s Becher Chase – a contest that will also be crucial to restoring the reputation of the most famous race in the world.

Ferdy Murphy’s comeback horse is one of 16 horses lining up in this three-and-a-quarter mile test, the first race over Aintree’s fearsome fences since they were further modified after two equine fatalities overshadowed the last-gasp win of Neptune Collonges in this year’s National.

With Tadcaster brewer John Smith’s ending its long-running sponsorship of the National next April, and four horse deaths in the last two Nationals, much rests on this year’s renewal of the Becher Chase – the field is headed by 2011 Aintree hero Ballabriggs – and the much shorter Grand Sefton Chase.

Four obstacles have been rebuilt with softer cores for today’s races and should not be so penal on the horse if the top spruce, unique to Aintree, is knocked off when horses negotiate the still formidable obstacles.

Yet West Witton-based Murphy, and Poker De Sivola’s jockey James Reveley, believe everything possible is being done to make Aintree as safe as possible – and that it is the dream of winning the Grand National that helps to lift the spirits when the winter weather is freezing at best.

First today’s race. Murphy deliberately gave nine-year-old Poker De Sivola a season off after the 2010 Cheltenham Festival winner ended the subsequent season by unseating in the Scottish National before winning the season-ending bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown in April 2011.

Fifth on his comeback at the end of October to the Reveley-ridden Benny Be Good at Newcastle, the trainer said: “My only worry is the soft ground. He is better on better ground, as you saw in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham under Katie Walsh and then at Sandown, so we are taking a chance.

“That said, you can’t win it if you’re not in it. He’s a horse who I have always thought would handle the National fences in time. Today’s race is a quiet, more low key introduction – a short run to the first out in the country by the Canal Turn – rather than all the razzmatazz of Aintree on Grand National day.

“He has won his novice and handicap hurdles on soft, and then I deliberately rested him for a year after the bet365 race. I’ve found with horses in the past that have raced in these big end-of-season handicaps that it takes a lot out of them and, in an ideal world, I want Poker spot on for next year’s National. This race will tell us a lot.”

Reveley, from Saltburn, rides nine-year-old Poker De Sivola for the first time today because Timmy Murphy – owner David Johnson’s retained rider – is sidelined by injury.

The jockey, whose horsemanship continues to be transformed by several summer stints in France, is no stranger to Aintree – he enjoyed a dream winning ride from the front on Endless Power in the 2008 Grand Sefton before Rambling Minster, trained by Reveley senior, was pulled up in the 2009 National when favourite.

In April, Reveley survived a spectacular fall when he was unseated from Always Right at The Chair, the tallest fence on the unique course. “I can’t wait. It should be a good ride today and it’s nice to have a first ride for Mr Johnson,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“Everyone says that they have cut down a couple of the fences in recent years, and reduced the drops, but they will still take a lot of jumping. You wouldn’t want to send a bad jumper there.

“I thought Becher’s Brook rode quite well in April, I went close to the inner and my horse didn’t even peck. They have lowered the fourth and that rides much better.

“It’s still the greatest test of horse and rider – and the win on Endless Power is still one of the best of my career. Ask any jockey which race they want to win, and most will say the National.”

Reveley is among those who believes soft ground should be a pre-requisite of the Grand National to slow down the 40-runner field. He would also be reluctant to see the height of the fences reduced still further if they’re any incidents today or in next year’s National; he believes bigger fences can be an effective deterrent in slowing down the field.

It’s a view endorsed by Murphy. “Where will the opponents stop? If it’s the National, it will be three day eventing next – and then fishing. If it is about welfare, they should go and help the homeless on the streets this Christmas. The National is a horse race, the people’s race, and it would be absolutely scandalous if anything happened to it.”

The weights are headed by the aforementioned Ballabriggs who returns to the scene of his finest hour. Sixth this year, his trainer Donald McCain said: “He’s in good nick, but obviously heavy ground and 11st 12lb is not ideal – it’s going to be hard work.”

Paul Nicholls is seeking a fourth Becher success in the last 10 years with Join Together. “I don’t think he is well handicapped but he will probably be suited by the fences and, if he is, I will give him an entry in the National,” said the in-form champion trainer.

The Grand Sefton field is headed by Tom George’s grey Nacarat who won the 2010 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, which stages its pre-Christmas meeting today.

Lucinda Russell’s Prosecco is one to watch in the two-mile handicap chase – the Scottish trainer was buoyed by Bold Sir Brian’s victory in yesterday’s Future Stars Chase at Sandown under Peter Buchanan, who will be in the plate today at the West Yorkshire track.